Thursday, February 09, 2006
I was waiting for the bus with my dad a few days ago on a cold Chengdu evening when Terry called from Beijing. After exchanging some greetings, she said I have a cultural question for you. I cringed in silence – please not another question about how to exchange business cards in China.
Terry is a friend of a friend from the US. She had just finished her MBA degree and decided to brave the new Wild Wild East – China. Starry-eyed but knowing little about the Chinese language and culture, she’s having some great difficulty adjusting to life in Beijing. So I fully expected a quick Chinese Culture 101 with her over the phone.
“The situation is like this,” she started in her cheerful yet restrained New York accent. “I’ve been in touch with this Chinese guy who owns a trading firm. He was introduced to me by an old colleague of mine. I was hoping to someday get a job from him, which would be ideal.”
Ok, I said. The pay probably would suck big time though, I contemplated to myself.
“So we’ve been hanging out. He invited me to dinner a couple of times. I didn’t worry at all because he’s married with two kids. Last night he invited me to go to a massage parlor with him, which I thought a little weird. But he said that in China people talked about business all the time at massage places. Is that true?”
That’s true, I told her. All my male business friends do that. Is this the cultural question she’s asking?
“No no,” she replied. “There’s more. The massage place was actually cool. Upscale. There’s buffet dinner. People walked around in their bathrobes. There were even mah-jong and cigar rooms. He got a nice room with two beds for us. We both got massages.”
All sounded fine then.
“Here’s the problem,” she said. “After we were done, the masseurs left discreetly. Then he came over to my bed and tried to kiss me! I pushed him away. I felt so awful. He has a wife at home with two teenage girls. My question is – is it culturally ok for a single woman to hang out with a married man in China? Did I mislead him in agreeing on having dinner with him?”
I started laughing. People at the bus stop stared at me. I explained to her that as far as I knew, contrary to the stereotype of Chinese loving and respecting their families, successful married Chinese men loved massage parlors and mistresses. You didn’t mislead him; he misled himself, I assured her.
I laughed at the irony of Chinese still believing that Americans have loose morals and are always ready for casual sex, like in Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives.
“But I felt awful. Think about the wife and two kids!” She didn’t buy into my casual rationalizing. I laughed even harder. This is not America, Terry, where affairs are guilt-ridden and hush-hush. This is the China you came for, the Wild Wild East. I suggested that she talk to the guy, if only to relieve her own guilt.
“I did,” Terry responded immediately. “But he refused to talk about it. I told him that I hoped this ‘incident’ wouldn’t impair our friendship and possible future professional relationship. He just kept silent. In the end, he mumbled that it’s all a ‘cultural misunderstanding’. Am I missing something cultural here?”
How would I know Terry? This is a country I only half understand, I said. What is merely in flux and what’s essentially Chinese? And when does a cultural difference become a moral difference, and vice versa?
These are all interesting, if trivial, questions Terry. I said to her while still laughing, under the cold stare of the others still waiting at the bus stop.